Prophets of Science Fiction (Episode 1: H G Wells): well-presented if restricted portrait of influential SF writer

Declan Whitebloom, “Prophets of Science Fiction (Episode 1: H G Wells)” (2011)

For some reason, SBS TV chose to screen this episode last even though it’s actually the first episode in the “Prophets of Science Fiction” series. Oh well – it’s fitting that Wells should be one of the first fiction writers featured in the series as four of his novels, written in a short period from 1895 to 1898, became sci-fi classics that virtually defined the genre in their emphasis on scientific and technological discoveries and predictions, and their theme of humans’ relationships to their inventions and what light – or darkness perhaps – such relationships shed on human nature and morality.

The episode presents H G Wells’s work and predictions in four main sections, each centred around one of the four significant novels that he wrote, plus an additional minor section that deals with his later years. The episode takes a rough chronological view of Wells’s life, beginning with his early upbringing, education and first career as a teacher before he was compelled to give it up. Wells’s debut novel “The Time Machine” is published in 1895 and is a commentary on the social hierarchy that existed in England during his time; around this novel the documentary explores the possibility of time travel and briefly investigates the grandfather paradox, in which a man may travel back to the past and shoot his grandfather before his own father is born as a way of committing suicide. (Or was it the milkman he shot?) “The War of the Worlds”, published in 1898, describes an aerial attack by Martian aliens on England – Wells sets the novel in Surrey and includes landmarks familiar to him in the novel – and what a direct military attack on civilians, and the upheavals and chaos they face, might be like. Around this novel the film explores the use of laser beams, anticipated as “heat rays”, and their many industrial and military applications.

“The Invisible Man” (1897) expresses an anxiety that advances in society and technology may have adverse effects on individuals’ morality and social morality generally. This section of the documentary is the focus for investigations into meta-materials or invisibility cloaks which can divert light around the objects they cover so these can’t be seen. The theme of the amorality of science and how it can be put to immoral use is referred to also in “The Island of Dr Moreau” (1896), the focus of a discussion on genetic manipulation and the creation of artificial chimeras (animals with genetic material from three or more separate species).

In addition to these novels, the film refers to some of H G Wells’s short stories and non-fiction, particularly works like “The War in the Air” (1908) which predicts aerial warfare and “The World Set Free” which predicts the invention and use of atomic bombs or bombs that explode continuously. The film mentions that this latter work was read by physicist Leo Szilard who was deeply impressed and influenced by it. In the 1920s, Wells became enthusiastic about cinema and wrote a screenplay for “Things to Come” (released in 1936) which deals with biological warfare, social collapse and the rise of global technocracy.

With a mix of interviews of regular guests like physicist Michio Kaku and writer David Brin and various others who don’t appear in other episodes, dramatic re-enactments, archival film footage, animation and excerpts from well-known Hollywood films, the episode is well-structured and orderly and presents Wells as a mostly sane and rational writer; apart from references to his unconventional private life (Wells had romances with several women with the apparent approval of his wife and his four children were born to three women), there is hardly any mention of his personal affairs insofar as they had no direct or obvious effect on his career. Possibly controversial issues, or at least those that might upset God-fearing, Republican-voting Americans, such as Wells’s politics, his ideas on gender relations, opposition to Zionism and mixed views about Soviet leader Joseph Stalin aren’t mentioned, even though they may have had some influence on what he wrote.

The documentary sticks resolutely to the idea that running throughout Wells’s work is the belief that human beings’ dark nature is the chief problem when the issue of the misuse of science and technology arises. This is a very simplistic black-and-white view of Wells’s beliefs about human nature and society: the Wikipedia article on Wells mentions among other things that he was a strong believer in meritocracy and envisioned the rise of a world government. Towards the end of his life, Wells became outspoken against the Roman Catholic Church and seems to have been regarded as a crank by his literary contemporaries.

So overall we have a film that celebrates Wells’s literary reputation (with some reservations) but which gives a fairly sketchy view of the real man behind the novels who surely was a far more interesting and eccentric individual than the one presented here.


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